Out-of-school suspension

A social work team takes a critical look at the effects on youth, families, and educators

 Left to right, Misa Kayama, Wendy Haight, and Priscilla Gibson

Research team members, left to right, Misa Kayama, Wendy Haight, and Priscilla Gibson

NATIONWIDE, African American children are three times more likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts. The racial disparity in out-of-school suspension rates has sparked discussion, debate, and policy changes. Last fall, Minneapolis Public Schools made headlines when it banned suspensions for pre-kindergarten through first-grade students and required review of suspension requests for all students of color.

A team in the School of Social Work began researching out-of-school suspensions in 2011. Over the past 18 months, results of the multi-layered study of out-of-school suspension and how it persists as a social justice problem, both in and out of the public school system, have been published by faculty members Priscilla Gibson and Wendy Haight, postdoctoral associates Misa Kayama and Jane Marshall, and doctoral student Robert Wilson.

The interviews were conducted in 2012–13 at metro-area middle and high schools. To achieve a well-rounded perspective on out-of-school suspension and its effects, the researchers spoke with participants from all sides of the issue—educators, administrators, students who had received suspensions, and the students’ parents or caregivers.

The team used three critical lenses to better understand and analyze the diverse responses: ecological systems theory, which explores social systems and how they interact; critical race theory; and social language theory, which in this study examines the use of criminal-justice-system language in participants’ narratives of their experiences with out-of-school suspension. Among the findings:

+ All interviewees expressed a commitment to students’ education and the majority agreed that out-of-school suspensions were a racial issue.

+ Students and caregivers view racial bias as responsible for creating a school culture that pathologizes black students and families.

+ Seventy-six percent of participants—including 96 percent of educators and 65 percent of students—used criminal-justice-system language in their narratives of experience with out-of-school suspensions.

Relationships, justice, language, and solutions

From the interviews, the research team gained insight into the ways that out-of-school suspensions affect the social systems of both a child’s school life and family life. When these two microsystems interact as they do when a student is suspended, says Haight, the family system and school system form a larger meso-system that can actually promote a student’s educational success when utilized effectively. But when family–school connections are under-developed, interaction about problems often leads to tension rather than collaboration between parents and teachers.

For many caregivers, says Gibson, “The first time a teacher is calling you about your child, they’re calling about a problem, and that does not bode well for a good relationship.”

In relationships like these, where communication occurs only as a result of trouble, the researchers found an opportunity to apply restorative justice practices, a method developed by U social work professor Mark Umbreit.

Right now, says Haight, disciplinary practices in schools focus less on restoring educator–student relationships and more on punishing kids. A suspension too often removes a child from a conflict without fixing the underlying problem. Restorative justice brings the emphasis back to strong personal bonds and healthy communication. It gives students the chance to truly solve the conflict before returning to the classroom.

“Look at individual children—and the whole child, not just the behavior,” says Kayama.

Kayama’s analysis of the criminal-justice-system language used in disciplinary practices revealed that young students, black males especially, get categorized as “offenders” and even “criminals” from an early age.

“Language is a very powerful tool for socializing children,” adds Haight. “We need to be very critical about the appropriateness of language and the hidden message it sends.”

Gibson, Haight, and Kayama agree that any approach to fixing out-of-school suspension problems will require commitment and cooperation from all parties.

“Any solution needs to have something for everybody involved,” Gibson said. “All kids and all teachers and administrators and families are affected.”

Concrete resolutions could involve an increased presence of social workers in schools as a way to support teachers, smaller class sizes, preventative communication with parents and caregivers, and respectful interventions that include parents, teachers, administrators, and students, all of whom have important contributions to make in resolving underlying problems.

“We have to make it humanly possible for teachers to do what they want and need to do,” says Haight.

The study showed that out-of-school suspension is one part of a larger, systemic problem in public schools. It’s an issue that can seem intimidating and, when left unsolved, can harm a school’s ties to its students and its community.

“We have a lot of blame going on,” says Gibson. “We would just like to get out of the blame game and on to more strengths-based, solutions-based approaches.”

A diverse team makes a difference

Professor Priscilla Gibson came to suspensions research through previous work with African American grandmothers acting as caregivers for their grandchildren. In every study with the caregivers, education and discipline came up, Gibson says, and it prompted her to further explore these intergenerational caregivers’ experiences with out-of-school suspensions. In the past, Gibson has also collaborated with the U’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) on evaluations of school policies, including discipline, in north Minneapolis.

Professor and Gamble-Skogmo Chair Wendy Haight began studying the positive socialization of African American children in the 1990s in a black church in Salt Lake City. She and Gibson began work on out-of-school suspensions in 2011 and were joined shortly by Misa Kayama of Japan, who completed her Ph.D. in social work at the University of Illinois before coming to the University of Minnesota for a postdoc.

“I thought it would be fascinating to be part of the research team,” said Kayama. Her strong interest in school-based research and her experience working with African American youth as a school social work intern made her a valuable partner.

Aware of the suspension issue’s many facets, the researchers purposely formed a diverse team. Postdoctoral researcher Jane Marshall brought expertise in youth cross-over from the child-welfare to juvenile-justice system. Doctoral student Robert Wilson contributed expertise with black youth. All contributed to a unique team dynamic. The group’s mix of insiders and outsiders to African American culture helped to keep their data analysis balanced, the team members report. Individual members acted as a system of checks and balances to ensure the analysis was valid and credible.

“The strength in our team is that we have people from really different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives,” says Haight. “It helps us to more fully understand the perspectives that we’re trying to interpret.”


“Caregivers’ moral narratives of their African American children’s out-of-school suspensions: Implications for effective family–school collaborations,” Gibson and Haight, Social Work, 58 (3): 263–272, July 2013.

“The out-of-school suspensions of black students: A racial and social justice issue,” Gibson, Haight, and Kayama, CURA Reporter, 44 (2): 15–19, 2014.

“An ecological-systems inquiry into racial disproportionalities in out-of-school suspensions from youth, caregiving and educator perspectives,” Haight, Gibson, Kayama, Marshall, Wilson, Children and Youth Services Review, 46: 128–138, 2014.

“The role of race in the out-of-school suspensions of black students: The perspectives of students with suspensions, their parents and educators,” Gibson, Wilson, Haight, Kayama, and Marshall, Children and Youth Services Review, 47: 272-282, 2014.

“Use of criminal justice language in personal narratives of out-of-school suspensions: Black students, caregivers, and educators,” Kayama, Haight, Gibson, and Wilson, Children and Youth Services Review, 51: 26–35, 2015.

Read more about the School of Social Work.

Story by Ellen Fee  |  Photo by Greg Helgeson  |  Spring/summer 2015